The rapid switch to distance learning for 55 million schoolchildren was never going to measure up to the experience of five days a week of teaching and learning in classrooms, despite the hard work of educators. The kids who did log in regularly had limited live instruction and few opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other. In many school districts, teachers did not teach new content at all, sticking to reviewing standards they’d already covered. In other cases, distance learning amounted to little more than schools posting lessons online and leaving it up to students and parents to figure it out.
That left thousands of frustrated parents and students. Many just logged out.
District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.
So, what will happen this fall?
With the all-too-likely scenario that remote learning must continue for some students and some communities—whether part time or full time—districts know they must do better. This won’t be “emergency” learning anymore, so parents and students’ expectations for the experience are going to be much higher.
An all-remote schedule must come a lot closer to replicating a traditional, in-school experience for students and for teachers.
Education Week spoke to more than a dozen district leaders and other experts on school operations to discuss how the continued use of remote learning can, and must, get better. It requires much more planning, robust support for teachers, and regular adjustments to adapt to the needs of students, teachers, and families.
Why choose the all-remote option?
The best argument for this schedule is health and safety.
It’s the only scenario that eliminates the risk of exposure or transmission of the coronavirus in school buildings. It’s most likely to be used in regions where there’s significant community spread of the virus or an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.
And though it may be wobbly, many schools have a foundation to build on.
With the emergency pivot to distance learning in the spring, many districts bought laptops and devices for teachers and students. Some expanded home internet access through partnerships with providers or the purchase of WiFi hotspots. Some invested in professional development for teachers to build their virtual teaching skills, while some surveyed students and parents for feedback on the experience to use for improving future efforts.
How to make it work:
Planning, planning, and more planning. This time around, schools do have time to thoughtfully craft daily schedules for all subjects, develop or adapt curriculum to work in a virtual environment, and devise robust coaching and support for teachers.
- Use your curriculum teams to develop lessons that are aligned to standards and have built-in assessments. Revise grading policies so that students’ academic progress can be recorded in the virtual classroom. It may be necessary to upgrade digital curriculum and resources, and when budgets are extremely tight or declining, looking for high-quality open-source materials is a great option.
- Develop clear goals for teaching and learning for the remote environment. Organize courses so students can easily work through them. Offer a mix of content that allows for deep dives and problem-solving, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
- Provide daily synchronous learning opportunities—such as live video calls and chatrooms where students are interacting in real-time with their teachers and their classmates. But also build time into the daily schedules to allow students to work at their own pace.
- Designate coaches in each school to lead “virtual office hours” to help teachers and students with technical glitches. This may require hiring more IT staff to not only troubleshoot technical problems, but to make sure the district’s own technology infrastructure can support a fully remote learning environment.
- Plan robust supports and accommodations for students who struggle in a remote learning setup. Provide small group sessions for teachers and those students. Look into whether some special education classes and therapeutic services can continue in-person, adhering to health and safety protocols.
- Appoint teachers and other support staff who will regularly check in with students to ensure they are keeping up with lessons and completing their work. Assign virtual tutors to work with students who are struggling, and set up one-on-one sessions to provide academic, emotional, and mental health support to students.
- Facilitate regular opportunities for parent and teacher engagement, including scheduled virtual conferences and as-needed feedback.
- For onboarding new teachers, hold in-person, small-group orientations that comply with social distancing rules. If that’s not possible, replicate the small group onboarding and support sessions for new staff members online.
- Establish regular channels of input and feedback from teachers, other staff, parents, and students, and be nimble enough to adjust on the fly when things aren’t working.
- Summer professional development sessions should focus on building virtual teaching skills, leading synchronous learning, and finding or developing high-quality digital curricula.
Pros: This is the lowest-risk scenario. Students and staff are kept safe from the virus, and there’s no interruption in instruction if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak. Many state education departments, including New Jersey, are encouraging districts to create remote learning plans that they can seamlessly transition to if necessary.
Because it doesn’t really matter where teachers live, districts can hire teachers from across the country to teach virtual classes. This flexibility can help districts that perennially struggle to find teachers for hard-to-staff areas like science, math, special education, and foreign languages. In his west Texas district of Ector County, Superintendent Scott Muri had persistent teacher shortages before the pandemic. Now, he’s got 350 vacancies, but said he will cast a wide net to fill positions if the district uses an all-remote or partially remote schedule.
Districts also have a lot more flexibility assigning teachers. Teachers may no longer need to be tied to a school, for example, but can teach their subject area across the district or even in neighboring districts where the school systems are part of a collaborative.
Teachers with underlying health conditions that put them at a higher-risk of illness or death from COVID-19 or who have family members in those high-risk groups can continue working.
Cons: In a word, equity. There’s worry—with evidence to back it up—that special education students, as well as low-income, homeless and foster students, English-language learners and students who may need more supports, will fall further behind. Despite broad efforts to provide devices and WiFi access to students this past spring, students in many communities still don’t have computers or the internet at home. Others live in environments that are not conducive to learning.
Teacher and student burnout are real concerns. There are also other staffing challenges, including figuring out how to evaluate and support teachers virtually and finding child-care solutions for teachers who are juggling teaching and parenting. Students in classes that require lab work and hands-on experiences, miss out on valuable opportunities. Collaborating with fellow students—and socializing in real life—suffers.
Keeping students physically and emotionally engaged is much more difficult. Athletic programs, extracurricular activities such as drama and music, and physical education classes, which are important for students’ emotional and mental well-being, are limited.
All-remote requires a sturdy, up-to-date technology infrastructure to support daily virtual learning, an expensive investment with ongoing costs to maintain.
Employees who aren’t essential to remote schooling—such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers—may be furloughed. Districts will still have to spend money to keep up buildings that few people are using.
Sources, in alphabetical order: Brett Blechschmidt, chief financial officer, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.; Sharon Contreras, superintendent, Guilford County Schools, Greensboro, N.C.; Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association; Eric S. Gordon, CEO, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Cleveland, Ohio; Todd Horenstein, assistant superintendent for administrative services, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.; David G. Hornak, executive director, National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE) and superintendent, Holt Public Schools, Holt, Mich.; Mike Magee, CEO, Chiefs for Change; Scott Muri, superintendent, Ector County Independent School District, Odessa, Texas; L. Oliver Robinson, superintendent, Shenendehowa Central School District, Clifton Park, N.Y.; Mike Stromme, deputy superintendent of teaching and learning, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.; Steven Webb, superintendent, Vancouver Public Schools, Vancouver, Wash.; Robert Zywicki, superintendent, Mount Olive Township School District, Mount Olive, N.J.
Documents: “Rising to the Challenge of Covid-19: A Planning Framework for the 2020-21 School Year,” (May 2020), Los Angeles County Office of Education; “Reentry to a New Normal,” (June 2020), Mount Olive Township School District; “Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education,” (May 2020) Maryland Department of Education; “Covid-19 Considerations for Reopening Schools: Initial Guidance for Schools and Districts (May 2020) Kentucky Department of Education; “Considerations for Reopening Mississippi Schools,” (June 2020) Mississippi Department of Education; “Scheduling Concepts for Hybrid Learning,” Aaron Dover, Los Angeles County Office of Education; “Considerations for Schools,” (May 2020) U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention; “A Strong and Healthy Start: Safety and Health Guidance for Reopening Schools,” (June 2020) Vermont Education Agency and Vermont Department of Health; “A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools,” (June 2020) California Department of Education